Cut harvest argument and reap rewards of holiday

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Historian challenges `myth' that school year is linked to agricultural calendar

It is as regular a fixture of the school calendar as results day: the annual outcry over the length of the summer holidays. Each year, critics bemoan the irrelevance of a system based on farmers' need to have their children free to help with the harvest.

But Jacob Middleton, a historian at London University's Birkbeck College, said this is myth: school summer holidays have nothing to do with the agricultural calendar.

By the late 18th century, English farms were largely mechanised. Smallholdings were increasingly rare, and inventions such as the threshing machine made it easier to harvest hundreds of acres. "There wasn't enough work for all the adult men," Mr Middleton said. "And the Factory Act in the 1830s put increasing restrictions on children in work. So it's extremely unlikely that children were working."

Meanwhile, the notion of the middle-class holiday had begun to develop. Since the 18th century, Parliament and the courts had gone into recess between July and September. Gradually, this seeped into middle-class professions.

"A lot of children in public schools had parents who were lawyers or in Parliament," Mr Middleton said. "So by the early 19th century, public schools took four or five weeks' holiday. That also suited teachers, who liked to think of themselves as middle-class professionals."

By the 1870s, when state schools were introduced, a clear pattern was already established: two weeks' holiday at Christmas, one week at Easter and four or five weeks over the summer.

"It was a pattern established not by rural schools, but by urban centres: London, Birmingham, Glasgow," Mr Middleton said.

"It was aimed at teachers, though there was a feeling that play was an important part of learning."

Within 20 years, these holidays had become an integral part of teachers' professional identity. And they had begun to draw criticism. Teachers, people felt, had altogether too much free time.

A letter to the Daily News in 1892 noted: "Little by little, the holidays at most of our schools have increased from an average of eight weeks in the year to something like 14. This gradual change has been entirely in the interest of the masters, for the school fees have not decreased in corresponding ratio."

Another correspondent wrote: "I am convinced young boys, especially those with no real love of learning, lose in the long holidays much of the knowledge and discipline received in the short terms."

"You can start to see the arguments that we have in the 21st century," Mr Middleton said. "They're attacking the prestige of teachers."

And there was another argument used against the summer holidays: incompatibility with the harvest.

In less industrialised Scotland, farmers called for a long holiday in September and October, when their teenage children could be put to use in the fields. And in Kent, truancy during the September hop harvest continued into the 20th century.

But, Mr Middleton points out, arguments about the irrelevance of harvest- based summer holidays nonetheless resurface annually.

"It's become a covert attack on the rights of teachers," he said.

"The rhetoric about the harvest is bound up in trying to discredit the idea of these big holidays - that it's something we did in the past and we should be modern and move on from it."

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